Team Behind Oscar-Nominated Doc 'The Square' Working on Anti-'Tyrant' TV Series

Jehane Noujaim
Matthew Furman

Jehane Noujaim directed the acclaimed documentary The Square, a firsthand account of the Egyptian revolution.

Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer say they want to "challenge that 'Tyrant,' 'Homeland' narrative for the United States"

Director Jehane Noujaim and her producing partner Karim Amer, who were behind last year’s Academy Award-nominated Egyptian revolution documentary The Square, have revealed that they are putting together a new TV series aimed at challenging perceptions of the Arab world as portrayed by such shows as Homeland and Tyrant.

"It’s very early days, we’re literally working on a pilot right now," Noujaim told The Hollywood Reporter on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which closed last week, adding that it would be her first venture away from documentaries. "We’re looking at a place to shoot,” she added.

The Middle East, she added, was abundant in "fascinating and rich" stories. "And yet the two big TV series to come out of the region are Tyrant and Homeland."

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Added Amer: "We’re looking to challenge that Tyrant, Homeland narrative for the United States. It’ll hopefully be of a similar scope, but that’s our main focus now, the anti-Tyrant."

Although The Square was Egypt’s first-ever Academy Award nomination, going on to be released theatrically across the world and also on Netflix, the documentary hasn’t exactly been celebrated in its home country. Its critical view of the Egyptian army’s actions during and after the revolution in 2011 provoked significant controversy, especially with the military now in power, and Noujaim and her fellow filmmakers have been personally attacked in the media for their work.

"We were completely ripped apart on this Bill O’Reilly-type show, but 10 times worse," she explained. "We were accused of being spies, of enemies of the state. Khalid [Abdalla, one of The Square’s central characters] was called a foreign agent who had been trained by U.K. intelligence and had come back to overthrow Egypt. If people didn’t actually believe it, it would have been comical it was so ridiculous."

Last week, an Egyptian court sentenced Sanaa Seif, a videographer and editor on The Square, to three years in prison for protesting against the new protest laws, which state that people can’t demonstrate in Egypt without having gained prior police approval.

"She was sentenced for simply not filing the proper permits in order to peacefully protest," said Noujaim, adding that Seif’s father – who she claims established the first human rights law firm in Egypt – died while she was in detention. "She wasn’t allowed out to see him before he died. It’s tragic and cruel."

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Although Noujaim describes the current situation in Egypt, where laws described by Amnesty International as "draconian" are being used to put down any form of dissent, as a "dark time," her and Amer remain positive about the future.

"The return to a totalitarian regime will not capture the hearts and minds of young Egyptians. They will only be intimidated by fear for so long," said Amer, pointing out that the road towards democracy has proved to be far longer and bumpier than people first envisaged.

"People expected that it would like ‘we the people, we come down, we say freedom, we overthrow the bad guy and then everything is golden.’ But that’s not how it works. Democracy is an ongoing struggle. But what we can’t do it write it off, because when we write it off we make that fight a lonely fight again; we make that dissident feel alone and cold and in jail and feeling liked nobody is supporting them."

But there is hope on the horizon in the form of the reinvigorated Cairo International Film Festival, due to start on Sunday. The event is back after two cancelations in three years due to civil wars, but now with a new team, led by respected critic Samir Farid at the helm. Several noted Arab filmmakers have chosen to entrust the festival with the regional premieres of their latest features, rather than take the increasingly more popular route of heading to Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

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"It really exciting. And it’s so important, at this time in Egypt, for there to be a strong film culture and the film festival to be coming back in a strong, powerful way," said Noujaim. "I think the spirit of the revolution will continue to the shape the country through culture. A lot of people from the cultural scenes were participants in the revolution, so I think the stories that will be told will continue to shed light on its legacy."

As for The Square, according to Noujaim the latest accusations coming out of Egypt is that the footage it captured from the civil unrest and military backlash was "fabricated by the CIA," with funding from Qatar. "Maybe I will get a job in Hollywood," she said. "They should give me a job if I can fabricate that."

Twitter: @alexritman